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In The Dead of The Night

11 Aug

This encounter is intended for five players of 6th-7th level

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“It’s time to make camp for the night…who has the first watch?”

I’m sure you still say it, but I feel like in our shiny 4th Edition world, this common phrase doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to. We used to dread taking those couple hours (four if you were the elf) to be the one awake, watching beyond the campfire, hearing the clatter of that 1d12 worth of Random Encounters and straining to hear whether it was just a few stirges or another F*#%ing manticore.

The random encounter hasn’t entirely evaporated from the game by any means, but the structured nature of 4th Ed’s experience/encounter planning has made the idea of random events a bit of a pariah.

But that was the appeal of being attacked in your camp at night. There was a real threat to it. The darkness which you usually held back with your party’s combined arms gained a little more terror when it was only you, huddled up in your orc-blind, waiting to see what would come poking around the dying embers of your campfire. The mystery and tension of camping in dangerous areas lead to a lot of cleverly planned and confidently executed bivouacs that were designed with defense in mind. Alarm spells, jingling pot and pan tripwire, salvaged beartraps, high canopy hammocks, they were all the sort of tactics paranoid parties employed so they could get a good night’s rest (and more importantly, your spells and hit points back).

I think that random encounters still have a place in the game – they just require a bit of preconception and purpose. When plotting out the encounters a party will face for a given level you might assume two or three easy encounters to be random ones – either occurring during travel or as a result of being attacked while camped. Since these usually aren’t major set-pieces or plot points they can be short and offer minimal threat (The advantage of surprise and already spent party resources will likely be in the monster’s favor anyway). Just because you choose a random time for his and hers owlbears to charge the camp, doesn’t mean those monsters weren’t in your experience budget. You trade a random monster chart for a pre-planned agenda, and let the timing and location of the fray stay unexpected.

So essentially, “random” encounters have become more purposeful (or perhaps more coherent to the campaign as a whole) while still maintaining their edge of being the unexpected. It isn’t a bad trade when all is said and done. And besides, if you come up with several possible encounters for the party’s level and locale, you can still roll on an exciting chart! Random still lives…it just takes some more work. (And trust me, utilizing the suggested encounters at the end of monster entries in any of the various Monster Manuals can be a big time saver). Besides, part of the reason for random encounters in the first place was to try out a fancy new monster! Like, maybe something from the often overlooked Open Grave….

Purpose
This encounter is meant to ambush the players when they are at their most vulnerable, camped out for the night in the middle of an unrelated journey. Mistakenly the PCs have camped over a mass grave left from a long forgotten war, where the spirits and bodies of warriors who have long since died still refuse to admit defeat, and will attack those who wittingly or unwittingly disturb their resting place.

Plot Text
Read (most likely paraphrase) this one to any players standing watch:

Boredom again…just like every night. It’s not that the trackless miles of traveling is any more interesting, but at least you are getting somewhere and challenging your body. All this sitting around, listening to the drone of insects and the mocking hoots of owls is fatiguing in a completely different way. Still, it isn’t that long to stay awake. Before long you’ll be tucked into your bedroll, nodding off under the sufficient cover of a tent. Not a care in the…
Was that a hand? It can’t be. Must be a squirrel moving around in the grass over there. A…nocturnal squirrel?
You are barely to your feet when an arm follows the writhing object out of the ground. Definitely a hand, the skin pulled taught and dirty, beaten and worn by age and worms. A moan goes up from nearby, and the slithering of chainmail to the staccato beat of unsteady legs approaching you.
Hopefully there is enough time to call out an alarm. They are coming from every side. Even below.

Map
Give your players the opportunity to map out their camp on their own – after all, they are the ones setting the camp and know how many tents/bedrolls they have between them. This might be hint alone to plan defensively when setting up their sleeping arrangements. If your players are vague or not that interested in the details, use the map below (I embellished very little on this one, so you can construct it very closely with the “Wilderness” set of Dungeon Tiles). The example details encounter No. 4, just to give you an idea on some possible layouts. Note that some of the undead should emerge from the ground already in the camp, and others might wander in from the fringes.

Features of the Area
Tents – Tent flaps are a bit unwieldy, and exiting a tent requires 2 squares of movement. Creatures inside a tent have full concealment though the tent is unlikely to be thick enough to provide cover

Campfire – Depending on how well the players have maintained their campfire (if they are using one at all) this may pose a danger to either the PCs or their undead opponents. Consider letting a lit campfire deal 5 Fire damage to any creature that moves through or begins it’s turn on the campfire’s square

Trees – Tall, sturdy deciduous trees provide an escape route, a lookout post, or convenient cover. Climbing one should be an Athletics Check Easy DC

Cliff – Setting the encounter near a drop adds some tension, limiting the player’s avenues of escape. This cliff drops steeply down a good 15 feet or so (1d10 damage fall)

Water – The stream drops quickly to about thigh height, and is treated as rough terrain. You might wish to constrain the undead’s movements to the pictured side of the river (where their grave is) in order to provide beleaguered PCs a means of escape.

Tactics
Tactics will vary depending on which undead end up popping out of the ground, but each iteration of this encounter has a few things in common. Where enemies will pop out of the ground, or approach from will vary depending on the map’s layout, but try to stagger the arrival of minions, skirmishers, and a few brutes or soldiers. This will drop that feeling of dread onto the players as they realize there are more opponents than what they see, and they could appear from any side (sorry warlock, no safe back row to hide out in without fear of retribution!)
The wraith will rise out of the ground near (or even through) the campfire, easily phasing through the stone burying it’s crushed former body. This will likely give it the drop on any lookouts or PCs who have gone without tents.
At least one soldier/brute emerges from the soil inside one of the tents, hopefully startling an unarmed (and possibly unarmored) PC.
Pre-plan which squares your undead will be emerging from. If a player chooses unwittingly to sleep over one of these squares, that will grant the creature a free grab attack with combat advantage during a surprise round.

Monsters
Wraith [Not pictured, lurks beneath the campfire square] (Monster Vault pg. 284)
Green Arcanian/ Skeletal Wizard (Monster Manual III pg. 16)
Ghast (Monster Manual III pg. 95)
Rot Grub Zombie [Z] – and Rot Grub Swarm (Monster Manual III pg. 166-167)
Wight (Monster Manual pg. 262) 5
Forsaken Shell (Open Grave pg. 148)
Dread Zombie [G] (Open Grave pg. 197)
Skeletal Archer [S] (Open Grave pg. 180)
Crawling Gauntlet [U] (Open Grave pg. 142)

To determine which encounter the players face, roll 1d4

Encounter 1
x6 Crawling Gauntlets
x1 Wraith
x2 Ghasts
x1 Wight
x1 Rot Grub Zombie

Encounter 2
x6 Crawling Gauntlets
x1 Wraith
x2 Dread Zombie
x1 Forsaken Shell
x1 Rot Grub Zombie

Encounter 3
x6 Crawling Gauntlets
x1 Wraith
x1 Green Arcanian
x2 Wights
x1 Rot Grub Zombie

Encounter 4
x6 Crawling Gauntlets
x1 Wraith
x3 Dread Zombie
x1 Skeletal Archer
x1 Rot Grub Zombie

Special Considerations
An encounter like this can wind up being particularly unfair to fighters, paladins, and other heavy armor wearing characters. Much of their class balance revolves around their easy access to heavy armor as an inherent advantage, and denying that (since they cannot sleep in heavy armor, and will not have time to properly dress) can put them at an unfair disadvantage – especially if one of the player’s more potent magic items was his or her suit of shining fieldplate.

To offset this, you might wish to allow them to dress partially (throwing on an arming coat, tightening on their helm, slipping into the ol’ greaves). Doing so would grants +1 AC per move action spent, up to a total of half (rounded down in this case) of the armor’s normal value. This also adds a layer of resource management to the fight – is it better to take the time to armor up, or get out there and fight in your underwear (it isn’t entirely unheard of).

The site of an ancient battlefield, and all of these undead were (or were at least the hands of) soldiers left to rot. If the players seem like they are in a hopeless situation, a History Hard DC check might reveal something about what happened to these creatures back when they were men. Showing some signal of allegiance to their former army or recognizing their sacrifice, or offering a proper burial might sway the wraith, skeleton, wights or ghasts, getting them to give up pursuit of the players. Other undead (especially the crawling gauntlets) are too far gone to be reasoned with.

Asleep and Awake
It might help to review the rules for resting, sleep, and waking up (Player’s Handbook pg. 263). A particularly cruel DM might rule that a player is groggy for the first round of combat (dazed) unless they make an Endurance Easy DC Check but you didn’t hear that from me.

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